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On Harriet and Whitewashing Our Heroes

Updated: Feb 7

August Wilson lived by one rule: No white directors for major productions of his plays. Ever. Because white people refused to hire Black directors, Wilson’s plays rarely made it to Hollywood. When he finally decided that it was time for Fences to become a film, he made sure white people knew that they had no business directing anything with us in it. “White people have set themselves up as custodians of our experience,” the famed playwright explained. It isn’t enough that they once owned our bodies. They must own our stories too. William Styron, a wholly unremarkable white man, whittled Nat Turner down to nothing more than a buck lusting after white women in his book, Confessions of Nat Turner. But Black people have never passively accepted white people’s shenanigans. John Henrik Clarke clapped back with William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, calling Styron "a white intellectual in blackface.” These Black writers gathered Styron.

Four years later, Toni Morrison checked the hell out of some white woman for having the audacity to think she could actually write Angela Davis’s biography, “On the other hand, who is Regina Nadelson and why is she behaving like Harriet Beecher Stowe, another simpatico white girl who felt she was privy to the secret of how black revolutionaries got that way?” God, Morrison, was surgical with this shit wasn’t she? Morrison administered the coup de grâce as only she could, “the consequence of this singularly parochial research is that Angela Davis is revealed to be pretty much like Regina Nadelson, an American. “People see her as a black leader and as a liberated woman. There is something else that matters to me: she is an American.” And as for her personal regard for her subject, Miss Regina likes her: “She is kind and funny.” Yessum, Miss Regina. We all are.” May I remind you that Morrison is an Aquarius? We like our petty well done. Like Clarke and Wilson, Morrison was a fierce protector of Black cultural production. The price for white people writing, studying, and theorizing about Black people is watered down versions of us that leave them belly full but we hungry. It is the spirit of these ancestors that I call on to question who thought it was a good idea to hire a white woman as the lead historian for this film? Now, before I go any further I am well aware that Kate Clifford has published books on Harriet Tubman, as many white people have. In fact, Sarah H Bradford was the first to publish her interviews with Tubman. But this is how white supremacy professionalizes itself for profit. It’s why Tim Wise and Robin DiAngelo stay booked and other Black scholars who BEEN doing this and doing it well have not reached the same superstar status. It’s why so many blue check negroes on Twitter showed their asses when a Black hip hop deejay asked the question everyone should have been asked, “"there is a white woman curating the hip-hop part of the NMAAHC Smithsonian?!?! Who let this shit happen?"”

(Yes, Timothy, I'm looking at you and peeped how you smooth sidestepped the controversy by not opening your mouth other than to retweet Chuck D's endorsement. Your silence is power and privilege.) White people will always be more qualified, credentialed, and sought after than Black people even if the topic is us. So Clifford Larsen, the lead historian on 'Harriet,' defending the Black bounty-hunter named Bigger Long is par for the course.

This Bigger, not to be confused with Richard Wright’s Bigger, is hunting Harriet but gets shot and killed by Harriet’s old slave master. Of course, she forgives her old slave master because everybody knows that’s the only way you can get into the gates of heaven. Can y’all imagine God denying Harriet at the gates because, despite freeing over 100 Black people, she didn’t forgive her slave master? Why is forgiveness the only way to get into heaven? Bueller? Anyway, Clifford Larson knows good and damn well that Black bounty hunters were rare as fuck. White people love playing in our faces. Any Black historian consulting on this film would have been like, “Now, Kasi, you know…” Judging by her tweet, Clifford Larson clearly thought that the inclusion of this fictionalized Black bounty hunter would sail right on past us unsuspecting negroes. Yessum, Miss Kate. We mighty grateful for your big white woman insight.

White people’s penchant for trivializing Black experiences stands out during Clifford Larsen's interview about the film:

As someone who’s been studying Tubman for a long time, what other aspects of her character stand out to you?

Tubman was a very strong, determined person who lived with a disability and was still able to accomplish so much. Abolitionists who knew her wrote about her great intelligence and her dry sense of humor. The film doesn’t touch on the last fifty years of her life, but she was an incredible humanitarian, suffragist, and more.

Is this the Moses of Her People or Susan B. Anthony? None of Clifford’s description tells us what it was like for Harriet being a Black woman during this time. What kind of exclusion did Harriet encounter doing this kind of work? What was it like doing work that her own husband did not want her to do? Even worse, saying Harriet was a humanitarian is like saying the sky is blue. People call Bill Gates a humanitarian. Oprah. (Except they’re not. They’re philanthrocapitalists looking for their next money-making scheme.) Humanitarian cannot possibly describe the actions of a formerly enslaved Black woman loving us enough to risk her own life countless times. Describing Harriet as a humanitarian ignores the very specific contours of her campaign: she was freeing everybody Black. We sometimes say, “Let the Lord use you.” I’ve heard this saying by deeply religious folks and in places that resemble the soul-stirring power of Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. I've no doubt that this devotion released Harriet from fear and doubt. Let the Lord use you. But what if they don't want to be free? Let the Lord use you. But my husband won't even help me. Let the Lord use you. What was it like being Harriet thee Tubman? In Clifford Larsen's defense, no one knows except Harriet. But the brush Clifford uses to paint Harriet is so broad that she gets lost in the strokes. Isn’t the job of historians to come as close to approximating the truth as possible?

Harriet Tubman, 1860s.

Harriet was our Black shining Moses who didn’t hesitate to risk her life, because she loved us.* In her devotion, she showed us that we are sanctified right here on earth. She knew the god within us even before we did. No chains could ever deny this. No need to wait until we cross over to claim our inheritance. Seize it, now.

*I am borrowing the words that the legendary Ossie Davis used to eulogize Malcolm X.

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